Get to Know MillerKnoll Vice President R.J. Stelter
We recently sat down for an interview with MillerKnoll Vice President R.J. Stelter. In the interview, he shares what keeps him motivated, where he sees the office environment going, and what it takes to be a great leader.
1. Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Well, I grew up in and around the furniture industry for most of my life up until college. My dad worked for Steelcase for 25 years and I had an internship with Steelcase in college. After college, my dad decided to start up his own company and I joined along, helping him launch it off of the ground. But, I always had a name for myself there as his son, and I wanted to get out of his shadow. Best humble pie ever. I decided to move to Chicago and take a job with a tech company, CDW, doing sales. Lots of cold calling, no's, and voicemails. I was there for 8 years doing sales, training, and sales management and I thought I was going to be a lifer there. Then one day, out of the blue, my old boss from my college internship called and told me her company was looking for someone to lead a new team of junior sellers. She thought I'd be a great fit for the role and wanted to know if I'd consider it. I told them I was happy, but I'd be open to having a conversation. On my way home, they made me a job offer and after a lot of deliberation, I decided to take it. And the rest is history - I'll be celebrating 10 years this June!
2. Wow, congrats on 10 years! That is amazing. Are you still in Chicago, and where are you originally from?
Yes, I live in Chicago and I absolutely love it. It is the best big city in my opinion! Growing up, I have lived all over. I was born in Detroit, Michigan, but due to my dad's job, I moved all over following Big Blue (that's what we call Steelcase). I have lived in California, North Carolina, Michigan, and Florida.
3. California girl here...how do you deal with the cold?!
Not very well (laughing). Lots of movies and Canada Goose! I also enjoy visiting other dealers like yours whenever I can during my travels.
4. This one is a two-parter. What is your current title, and what are your primary tasks and responsibilities?
My title is Vice President of Distribution Channels & Dealer Development. My team has been tasked with ensuring we have the highest-performing dealer network in any industry. MillerKnoll believes that dealers are partners that we have to treat like clients, earning their business every day. Our team helps ensure that partnership and consults with our dealers to ensure they delight our clients. Specifically, we work with entrepreneurs on strategy, building excellence across all departments, being pillars of their community, and investing in our mutual growth. Right now, our team is mostly focused on integrating two amazing groups into one MillerKnoll unified dealer network. I also have nine direct reports.
5. It seems like you have spent a good portion of your career in leadership roles. What do you think makes you a great leader?
For me, the people I work with are my family. I care deeply for each of them as individuals, as the human beings, they are. I also believe in servant leadership and early development planning. I want to know where employees want to grow and help them get there. If you try hard and kick ass for me, I will be the first one to write you a recommendation. Having the best talent means coaching hard and rewarding hard.
6. What do you enjoy most about what you do?
There are a few things I really enjoy. For one, I love how people-centric my job is. We all work hard and genuinely love what we do, and it's just a ton of fun. We also have an incredible leader - our CEO is amazing. I love MillerKnoll's focus on serving our communities. While we are a for-profit company, we are always looking for ways that our profits can benefit our communities. I also love that we design for the good of humankind. Our designs have changed the world – the molded plywood, our cubicles, the Aeron chair, and so many more pieces have disrupted the furniture industry and offered a new perspective and solution. MillerKnoll is such an innovative company, but at the same time, sustainability is always at the forefront. And also, I love that we have a part in supporting essential businesses. It's all just really cool to be a part of.
7. What is your "why" and what keeps you motivated?
This ties into my previous answer, but my people. I have a business coach and together, we went through a values sheet. Its this crazy exercise that leads you to your top two motivators the two I landed on are positivity and service to others. My daily goal is to be positive in my service to my people. I have this sheet printed above my steps and I touch it every day. Whenever I get off track or have a bad day, I use this sheet as my north star and remember why I am doing all of this.
8. That is amazing, I love this! What does a typical day look like for you - personally and professionally?
I recently got into yoga and that is typically how I start my day. Sometimes I do it inside, and other times I do it on our rooftop deck. I also recently made the switch from single-use plastics to Nespresso. Workdays vary. I travel a lot for work and typically stay busy with leading trainings, as well as many after-hours work events, happy hours, and dinners. After work, I typically work out, and currently, I have my hands very full planning a wedding in July and a family reunion.
9. Ok, but how and when do you relax?!
I am not so great at that, working on it. I do enjoy going to the movie theater. I also love any and all water activities like water skiing, wakeboarding, and going to the beach whenever I can. Lots of time being active, I also really enjoy flag football. I recently started getting into grilling. If you can't tell, I like to stay busy and active!
10. Yes, I think I have realized that (laughing). You mentioned you were planning a wedding. Is this your wedding?
Yes, actually! I am getting married on July 9th.
11. Congratulations! That is very exciting. Do you have any mentors who have inspired you, or supported your development?
My dad. I had the industry’s best consultant at my disposal. After 20 years out of the furniture industry, Steelcase just brought him back. But, it's fun to talk smack to each other whenever we get together.
12. I want to ask you a few industry-specific questions if that is ok with you...Everyone these days is talking about the “post-covid” workplace. People want to know "what's next." Prior to the pandemic, office design, for years, has been shifting towards an open-office floorplan. Do you think covid has changed this, and do you see offices going back to the more traditional high-panel environments?
Good question. One of the things MillerKnoll prides itself in is being a research-based organization. Even before covid, our research indicated that people weren't in the offices that much - only about 20% of the time on average. To answer your question, no, I don't think we are working our way back to a traditional office environment. I see flexible work as here to stay - for a long time. There is a purpose and a place for every area, and the office is so necessary for culture, creativity, and collaboration. Sometimes, you need to be at home doing focus work or deep in a spreadsheet, other times you need social interaction with your peers, and other times, you might need a whiteboard brainstorm jam session. It's all about choice, flexibility, and variety. We were already headed in this direction, covid just accelerated it by proving companies can be successful with a hybrid or geographically dispersed business model.
13. I am noticing a lot of organizations are returning to work, and this seems to be accompanied by a lot of anxiety. How do you think furniture and good workplace design can alleviate some of these negative feelings?
The workplace supports culture. Bright colors and a cozy, residential design can help people feel more at home. Furniture can help to create a homey, warm, inviting, and buzzy space that people enjoy and look forward to being in. That is the biggest piece that is missing. Offices can support a quick stool chat to a scrum whiteboard session, and that is something you just can’t recreate at home. Can’t have that at home or in a coworking space.
14. Do you have a favorite industry event?
Probably Design Days, which takes place the weekend of NEOCON. I also love the leadership conference we have once a year. I always leave feeling inspired. It is the best networking event, where they cover leadership, they hand out awards, and there is usually some entertainment.
15. Earlier, you mentioned you like coffee - how do you like it?
Black and iced, always. Most days, it's Nespresso Intenso - shaken like a martini. Occasionally, I will treat myself to a dash of cream.
16. Do you have a favorite piece of furniture?
Yes, my current favorite is my DesignWithinReach Story Planter. During covid, I developed somewhat of a green thumb so I love that it showcases my plants. It's such a great statement piece and I get compliments on it every time I have someone over.
17. Any favorite TV shows?
Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones.
18. Favorite food or drink?
Mexican - fully-loaded ground beef tacos in a hard shell to be exact. A Spicy Skinny Marg on the side is my jam.
19. Ok, last question. Is there anything you'd like to share, that people who don't know you might be surprised to learn about you?
For people who know me, this is not a shock - but for people who don't, I am a huge softie. I get emotional about what I do and the people I work with.